African design goes beyond craft and curios

2010-02-20 13:44

FOURTEEN years ago a visionary advertising

executive at the southernmost tip of Africa created a commercial platform for

African design which has become one of the world’s leading design events and

proven that creativity can fuel an economic revolution.

When most tourists visiting Africa board their planes heading back

home they take back with them memories of the blazing sun, unending horizons,

the Big Five, digital cameras bursting with ­images and invariably luggage

loaded with beaded dolls, wooden salad servers with elephant heads, carved

hippopotamuses and faux burial masks.

In 1996 Ravi Naidoo, an advertising ­executive and marketer,

launched the ­Design Indaba and irrevocably altered ­perceptions of African


He saw the economic potential of multi-sectoral ­design originating

in Africa and named his biannual design convention ­using the ­Zulu word

“indaba”, which means “gathering”.

“The impetus for Design Indaba came from a strategic place,” says

Naidoo. “It came from the realisation that the ‘X factor’ that would transform

the economy would be creativity. That innovation and design could infect the

country and get business to understand that to become competitive in the global

world we would have to make products that were unique, marketable and


“We chose design because it’s the golden thread that straddles all

genres of creativity: film, dance, advertising, architecture, craft and graphic

design. We created a broad church that celebrated design.”

Design Indaba rapidly became one of the leading design conferences

in the world, attracting the great and the good of international design and

décor to the southern-most tip of Africa.

Sir Terence Conran, Ross Lovegrove, Stefan Sagmeister and Di

Fujiwara, creative director of Issey Miyake, are just some of the luminaries who

have spoken at the conference, which attracts design practitioners such as

architects, graphic designers, fashion designers, artists, writers and jewellery


This year’s line-up includes domestic ­diva Martha Stewart, trend

forecaster Li Edelkoort and a host of global design innovators. South African

creatives include cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, The Handspring Puppet Company and

celebrated ­architect Mokena Makeka.

But the Design Indaba is more than just a talk shop: it’s about

business. In 2004 the Design Indaba Expo was launched, adding a trade show

element where buyers could meet producers.

“Design Indaba, the conference, is global in scope, but the expo is

fiercely local in content. There are no imports on display. It’s a showcase

solely for South African creativity. We leveraged the halogen spotlight that

follows the international guests and gave our creative locals an opportunity to

bask in the glow and benefit from the magnet that Design Indaba had become for

buyers and media from across the globe.

“South African exhibitors do not ­benefit from a quota system; they

have to qualify to exhibit.

“If you think of it as a creative Olympic Games, they have to run

the qualifying times to make it there,” says Naidoo.

Design Indaba Expo is where major retailers in the United States

and Britain come to source innovative, contemporary and original designs. Among

the 362 buyers attending this year’s Design ­Indaba were representatives from

­Anthropologie, Gap, the Conran Shop, Walmart and Galeries ­Lafayette.

Business deals worth R200 million were concluded in one week at

Design Indaba last year. Handmade crafts, fabrics, fashion accessories and

ceramics were the biggest sellers.

Globus, a leading Swiss retail store, signed a deal with Darkie,

the streetwear design label of fashion designer Themba ­Mngomezulu, estimated at

R1.5 million.

The Swiss retail giant, ­inspired by the cornucopia of ­design

delights discovered in Cape Town, also plans to base its first few months of

retail this year entirely on a South African theme based on designs originating

at ­Design Indaba.

Craig Native, another stand- out South African designer, ­secured a

major deal with a ­retail store in Hamburg.

Imiso Ceramics, which first ­exhibited at Design Indaba in 2006,

supplies ranges of its pinched-bowl ceramics to Anthropologie, Bergdorf Goodmans

and ABC Home and Carpets.

Imiso, a Xhosa word which means “many tomorrows”, is the brainchild

of Andile Dyalvane, Lulama Sihluku and Zizopho Pofwa, three young designers from

Eastern Cape who now export up to 75% of their products abroad.

“Design Indaba set us on the right track,” says Dyalvane. “We now

know that our products can hold their own in a global marketplace and meet the

highest ­standards. Sales to Anthropologie and Bergdorf have meant that we are

able to expand our business and that we are getting more exposure in high-end


Fourteen years after it first opened its doors, Design Indaba has

proved that creativity can indeed fuel an economic revolution. Innovative

African designs, beyond the kitsch curios hauled home by weary travellers, have

caught the eye of global consumers. Retailers in the developed world have heeded

the call for Africa’s unique designs and African creatives have played their

part in solving South Africa’s crisis du jour, job creation.

Design Indaba has contributed R183 million to the GDP of South

Africa, been sold out for five years running, enticed buyers from Australia,

France, Germany, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates and won a slew of

international awards.

“We are finally comfortable in our own skins and speaking in a

voice that has not been heard before, telling a fabulous new narrative that the

world is celebrating,” says Naidoo.

“We are not trying to out-London London – we are presenting our own

unique design aesthetic and mining our distinctive heritage. South African

designers have proved that creativity and design are not simply about

entertainment value; that creatives are not just

minstrels. That they can transform an economy.”

Design Indaba 2010 takes place at the Cape Town Convention Centre

from ­February 24 to 28.

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